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Editor's Notebook

Roll Over? Never!: Vigilance, Skill, Backbone Needed to Deflect Ongoing Tire Criticism

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Despite the obvious political expediency – 2000 was an election year, after all – the TREAD Act wasn’t about penalizing wrong-doers, enhancing standards, improving technology or even getting a better handle on occasional problems. No, the real reason behind the TREAD Act, if you really think about it, is quite basic:

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People are ignorant about tires.

Consumers don’t know, don’t care or don’t care to know. They fail to realize that those four chunks of vulcanized rubber under their mega-SUVs are the only things keeping them and their loved ones from serious injury or even death. And despite the smattering of consumer education offered by this industry, the needle hasn’t moved, a fact borne out by study after study.

Congress did Americans a huge favor with the TREAD Act. The public, after all, cannot be held accountable, especially if there is a convenient scapegoat standing around with its head down, hands buried in its pockets.

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Was the TREAD Act a good thing? Absolutely. The end result will be better tires and advanced technology that will only enhance the performance of today’s high-tech tires. But that will come with a price consumers will have to absorb.

Has NHTSA done a good job promulgating tire testing, data collection and TPMS regulations to fulfill the core premise of the TREAD Act? Hardly, especially considering the recently finalized TPMS regs.

It is a cruel hoax to suggest that an edict enhances safety when, in fact, it does nothing of the sort. For NHTSA to allow technologically inferior indirect systems, a 25% underinflation trigger threshold and an absurd 20-minute warm-up period flies in the face of reason. And we haven’t even mentioned TPMS test conditions that don’t reflect the real world or the lack of provisions for tire dealers to have access to repair or recalibration information.

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NHTSA opted for consumer convenience over safety, for what was more palatable for automakers than useful for drivers. If you are going to inconvenience entire industries to save people from themselves, then you ought to at least do it the right way.

At press time, four tiremakers, TIA and Public Citizen filed suit in federal appeals court to overturn NHTSA’s safety-last TPMS regs. Even if some self-professed industry leaders don’t, this group recognizes that our collective reputation will suffer if we merely settle for whatever the government wants to foist on us.

We cannot just move on and take the easy way out, roll over and take our licks whenever federal agencies or state lawmakers offer up regulations and bills that effectively paint our products as junk.

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This magazine has been clear and consistent on NHTSA’s TPMS regs: They are badly – and potentially fatally – fashioned. They serve no one’s best interests if the best available science isn’t employed to warn drivers of underinflation well before tire damage, injury or even death can occur.

As Andrew Jackson said, “Eternal vigilance by the people is the price of liberty, and you must pay the price if you wish to secure the blessing.”

Which leads me to this point: This industry is not very good at establishing or shifting the argument or deftly deflecting criticism by changing the point of focus – the innate skills of polished politicians and high-priced PR practitioners. Case in point: Ford’s “It’s the tires” mantra, repeated endlessly during the 2000 Firestone recall.

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Often it is because our voice isn’t nearly as loud – or as coated in election donations – as the automakers’ or very “believable” to the media because we represent “big business.” Sometimes, like the old Monty Python skit about arguments, we counter only by repeatedly stammering, “No it isn’t!”

We have to get better at this because the tire-aging question is not going away anytime soon. Without a stitch of scientific evidence or reliable test procedure, attorneys, lawmakers and now auto companies have shifted the focus away from vehicles and consumer responsibility and placed it squarely on the tire industry. “Old tires are bad. Tire companies sell old tires. Ergo, tire companies are bad.”

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What they don’t say is that very few vehicles will have one set of tires for six or more years. What they don’t say is that there are too many variables involved to create one blanket age standard or test criteria.

What they’d never say is that tire deterioration has more to do with care and common sense than it does with the environment or some mythical flaw.

Political philosopher Edmund Burke wrote, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

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We have a tremendous story to tell – about our technology, about our products, about our value, about our dealers.

If we could only figure out a way to tell it.

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